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Personal Growth

The Future of Self-Improvement, Part I: Grit Is More Important Than Talent

What if long-term success doesn't really have that much to do with your "potential"? A look at recent research that debunks talent in favor of true grit.


In the late ’60s, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed a now-iconic experiment called the Marshmallow Test, which analyzed the ability of four year olds to exhibit “delayed gratification.” Here’s what happened: Each child was brought into the room and sat down at a table with a delicious treat on it (maybe a marshmallow, maybe a donut). The scientists told the children that they could have a treat now, or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two treats.

All of the children wanted to wait. (Who doesn’t want more treats?) But many couldn’t. After just a few minutes or less, their resolve would break down and they would eat the marshmallow. But some kids were better at delaying gratification: They were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes.

When the researchers subsequently checked in on these same children in high school, it turned out that those with more self-control — that is, those who held out for 15 minutes — were better behaved, less prone to addiction, and scored higher on the SAT.

Recounting Mischel’s research in an excellent New Yorker article (that this piece could not exist without), Jonah Lehrer writes that, after observing hundreds of hours of videotape of the children, Mischel concluded that the kids who resisted temptation used “strategic allocation of attention”:

Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow — the “hot stimulus” — the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated — it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

It’s not difficult to see how self-control would be predictive of success in certain spheres. It means trading short-term gratification for long-term goals, skipping the temptation to go to the movies and working on your novel instead. But that’s a relatively simple example — one that makes the decision to exercise self-control, or not, easy to see.In reality, we are faced with hundreds of these “tradeoff decisions” within the span of a single day. As the thoughtful blogger James Shelley has written, very often when we talk about the skill of “productivity” what we are really talking about is “self-control” — the disciplined ability to choose to do one thing at the cost of not doing another (perhaps more tempting thing).

Very often when we talk about the skill of ‘productivity’ what we are really talking about is ‘self-control.’

As the hierarchy of the traditional workplace breaks down, we are all gaining more freedom and flexibility. More and more, we can set our own long-term goals, we can determine our own work schedules, we can work at an office or at a coffee shop, we can make our own decisions about what we focus on today, and what we focus on tomorrow. But this “freedom” also brings responsibility — a responsibility that, I would argue, demands a vastly increased capacity for self-control.

In essence, Twitter is the new marshmallow. (Or Facebook, or Foursquare. Pick your poison.) At any given moment, a host of such “treats” await us. Emails, social media messages, text messages — discrete little bits of unexpected and novel information that activate our brain’s seeking circuitry, titillating it and inciting the desire to search for more. Our ability to resist such temptations, and focus on the hard work of creative labor, is part and parcel of pushing great ideas forward.

And yet: Self-control isn’t the whole story.

Intrigued by what qualities would most accurately predict outstanding achievement, Harvard researcher Angela Duckworth picked up where Walter Mischel left off. As she outlines in this TEDx talk, Duckworth found that self-control is an excellent predictor of your ability to follow through on certain types of difficult tasks — staying on your diet, studying for a test, not checking your email — but it’s not the most important factor when it comes to predicting success at “extremely high-challenge achievement.”

Duckworth was also suspicious of qualities like talent and intelligence as reliable predictors for remarkable achievement. And with good reason: Way back in 1926, a psychologist named Catherine Morris Cox published a study of 300 recognized geniuses, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Gottfried Leibniz to Mozart to Charles Darwin to Albert Einstein. Cox, who had worked with Lewis M. Terman to develop the Stanford-Binet IQ test, was curious what factors lead to “realized genius,” those people who would really make their mark on the world. After reading about the lives of hundreds historic geniuses, Cox identified a host of qualities, beyond raw intelligence, that predicted “greatness.”

Studying Cox’s findings, Duckworth isolated two qualities that she thought might be a better predictor of outstanding achievement:

  1. The tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”
  2. The tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.

Duckworth boiled these two characteristics down to a quality she called “grit,” defined as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal,” and set about testing it as a predictor for outstanding achievement. Here’s a recent New York Times article summarizing Duckworth’s research:

People who accomplished great things, [Duckworth] noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.
…She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success.

At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Duckworth carried out a similar “success study” with kids who competed in spelling bees. Again, it turned out that grit — in this case, the ability to persist and passionately pursue your goal of winning the spelling bee whatever it takes — was the best predictor of success. Verbal IQ scores were a factor, but they were inversely related to the grit scores. In essence, the smarter kids just didn’t try as hard, but still did pretty well sometimes. Self-control was also an influential factor, but not as reliable a predictor of success as grit, and not a completely necessary factor. That is, there was a subset of kids who had poor self-control but a lot of grit, who still performed very well.If it was ever in question, we can now rest assured that dogged hard work is the cornerstone of remarkable achievement. That said, Duckworth’s findings still raise some nagging questions: Is grit an inborn ability, just like intelligence or talent? Or, can grit be cultivated?

We’ll continue to examine the innerworkings of remarkable achievement in Part II of this article series. In the meantime, you can take Duckworth’s Grit Scale Test here.


What Do You Think?

Can we develop our capacity for grit? How have you done it?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (110)
  • KevinC

    There’s no doubt that grit is essential.  But this Duckworth Test doesn’t account for the fact that some tasks are important (and require grit) while others are hobbies/interests/etc. for which a wide-ranging, imaginative, non-focused, non-gritty approach is fine.  I’m an inventor, and spend 99% of my work time on a small number of focused goals, on a timescale of months or years.  In other tasks, like my music hobby, I am the complete opposite.  I have multiple, short-lasting research interests (ok, temporary music gear obsessions ;).   For the Duckworth test, I have to ask myself — am I flighty?  You bet, at home.  Am I capable of true grit?  At work — all the time.

  • Guest

    I think grit can be cultivated but that it takes a certain type of personality to be susceptible to it. For instance someone who acknowledges and accepts the idea of mind over matter but doesn’t practice it.

  • Arvind Venkataramani

    [I am not convinced that even the ‘grit’ metric is accurate, to say nothing of the theory of success it assumes]

    Doesn’t all of this depend on the purpose of your activity? If your purpose is to make something: a drawing, a design, an object, and you don’t finish it, that’s totally different from attempting to do something because you are trying to learn from it *whatever the actual outcome*? So just asking ‘whether i finish’ is quite misleading, because I often drop projects when I realise they’re a conceptual or methodological dead-end, and I think I’ve learned what I can. That makes me *smarter* about where I place effort, not irresponsible. Very few of my projects actually make it “completion” but that is because those are the ones that bubbled up as promising investments after a lot of trial & error.

    In sum: I start a lot of projects but they often die because they’ve served their purpose of exploring/learning about at a conceptual or methodological perspective. I finish very few because those represent that rare combination of worthy output, interesting process, and contribution to a long-term body of work.

    Therefore: what needs to be measured is the ratio of started to completed projects *when the intent is to complete* a project, not some mysterious absolute number that holds true across all efforts. And that therefore ‘grit’ for someone who’s trying to acquire expertise at a well-defined, measurable activity, is totally different from that of a person who’s working at a fuzzy, undefined, unpredictable activity. And therefore, any definition of ‘genius’ or ‘grit’ must take into account these nuances or basically be useless. (It’s not just a question of statistical significance: you actually get an incorrect conclusion if you conflate the two types of projects)

  • Lee R J Middlehurst

    Oh grit is SO major – particularly in my work.  Through my PhD I have had strong ideas but no recognition that the ideas were correct.  So many obstacles.  But now nearing the end of my PhD people are sitting up and acknowledging that my research was correct and now I’m altering university guidelines and giving talks etc.  Finally people are finally recognising that I was right…

    I keep getting tired of the fighting but grit keeps me going.

    Grit + ideas = defintely getting places.

  • CowboyUpMedia

    I’ve preached Grit for years and have some measure of success as a result of it.

    However, also agree with what Derek Sivers has to say:

    pg=e…

    “I had misunderstood Persistence.  Success comes from continually *improving and *inventing. Not persistently doing whats not working.

    Don’t waste years fighting uphill battles against locked doors.  Improve or invent until you get that HUGE response.”

    I definitely hang my hat on Grit, but having a Hit (well executed idea + some talent backing it) is also important if you’re measuring your life by results and influence on the world with your work.

    Watch that video – its worth 2 minutes of your day…

    Giddy up!

  • Estevan Carlos Benson

    I’ve never reflected on this matter but now I think I understand it.  Seems like patience has more to it than I thought.

  • Rushmore1216

    Sounds great. How does a person change if he/she cannot focus, etc. once he/she has identified the problem?

  • Andrew Horsfield

    Added to the ‘grit factor’ is the simple, yet difficult, task of actually having the courage to act (and where necessary re-act) with the courage of our own convictions. It’s this freedom of thinking and acting that creates utlimate success and happiness.

  • pant

    Brilliant.. as ever there was a valid theory for grit.  Thank you.

  • Anthony Cyril Williams

    If I was not interested in long term goals and only focused on productivity, I would have never read this article.

    Very good article….I am taking the Grit Test….

  • agambo

    Yeah and thats one of the reasons many people on leading positions are incompetent

  • refaatUFO

    A though stimulating article, I think grit can be cultivated if one has enough self-control, eventually it’s about how good you can correlate ideas, thoughts, goals with the physical application regardless of the “obstacles”

  • AppliedProsperity

    Thanks for the vid. I’m learning (at 40) consistent, focused energy. Also have learned recently the points you’re sharing here, Cowboy. Do what works; it doesn’t have to be a struggle. My struggle has been to stay focused LONG ENOUGH for a concept to get its wings.  Getting there. Thanks.

  • NY Fan

    I think I am extremely gritty. However, I still need to shift my focus now and then because my grit is not earning me money on the table…yet! I find this very difficult because I want to be gritty and the money issue keeps distracting me… I would love to hear about ways to make money with your grit, or how to get investors to invest in you, or how to remain focused when the grit is not putting bread on the table…

  • Cindymontsinger

    Very good article discussing the value in patience and willpower.

  • jkglei

    Rushmore, here’s a bunch of posts that we’ve done on Focus: http://the99percent.com/tips/b

  • jkglei

    Cowboy: Agreed, persistence is pretty useless if you’re not observing what’s not working and adapting accordingly! Hence article II in this series on the necessity of analysis: http://the99percent.com/articl

  • CowboyUpMedia

    Much obliged – part 2 was an excellent and balanced follow up.  Reminded me of the truths laid out in the book Outliers.  Nice and succinct-like.

    Say, do you think the folks out in Oakland OWS are referring to y’all? 😉

    http://bit.ly/the-99-percent

    I’ll stick with the 99% that preaches self-reliance. Thx for the great content.

    [tip of the hat]

  • CowboyUpMedia

    I know the focus struggle all too well myself.  We’ll both keep after it and CowboyUp!

    Happy Trails Pardner…

  • Joseph Harvey

    This is a great article that highlights the power of resiliency and one’s ability to overcome adversity.  Self control and “Grit” are qualities that are quite often overlooked in exchange for degrees, certifications, and more concrete and tangible qualities.  The organization that I work (i.c.stars) for is known for seeking out talent that has “Grit”.  Our development manager recently wrote a really great short blog highlighting our unique recruitment process.  http://bit.ly/qCsVbz

  • Scott M. Brannon

    This is a fantastic article, thank you!  

  • Gabriel Parker

    How can I send this article to a friend ?

  • ExpiredSolution

    googlely booger snot peeee  ppeeeeee hheeehhheee

  • jeffgoebbels

    I could nt get to the end of the article ,I gave up.

  • Pete H

    Very insightful and well-written article.  Thank you.  I think Mischel’s experiment partially answers the question of whether or not grit is innate.  To some degree, of course, it is.  If I have managed to be even a little bit objective about my own development, it is possible to increase your grit.  I have a degree in psychology, which has allowed me to see my own development in a unique way.  I am a good example of the tidbit noted toward the end of the article, that verbal IQ scores were inversely related to grit scores (which seems, again, to reinforce the idea that grit is changeable).  I did very well in school growing up and rarely felt challenged intellectually.  When I went to a university that was challenging for me, it was quite the shock.  However, decisions like that, deciding to challenge myself, from my perception have stimulated an increase in my own grit.  I have overcompensated the lack of challenge growing up by repeatedly challenging myself with things that are uncomfortable or difficult, the most extreme example so far being a solo, unplanned bike trip across the country.  It was particularly clear how my ability to persist toward a goal, regardless of the obstacles, changed through that experience.  And it manifest itself during the trip and for a while after.  I would add, then, that I think grit is a fluctuating characteristic, partly innate, and often dependent on the current situation you find yourself in, how much you have tested yourself lately.  A quote, from the movie Into the Wild, that I think gets at this desire to increase our grit, as well as some of the nature of grit:  “And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong.  To measure yourself at least once.  To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.  Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”  I have noticed in myself that the times I seem to be most able to press on are the times I most need to; in other words, that ease begets laziness and difficulty begets strength.  

    On a related note, Radiolab’s “Help” episode quotes a study that seems to prove that self-control is both able to be cultivated, as a plant grows with care, and is spent, similar to when you spend money you have less to work with.  Seemingly contradictory ideas, but explained well in the podcast.

    Challenge yourself.  It has been the most fulfilling part of my life.  As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

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